Daniel C Dennett

Freedom evolves


The purpose of a book review is to let you decide whether or not you are going to read the book. However, assuming the universe is deterministic, whether or not you read this book is already fixed, so there's no point in writing a review.

Well OK, may that was something of a fallacy, but I thought I'd give you a taster of the sort of thing Dennett deals with in this book. The point that he is trying to put over is that it is possible to have something which we would call freedom, even in a deterministic universe.

Those who have read other books by Dennett will know that his principal target is Cartesian Dualism and related ideas. This book is part of his program, in that it shows that we do not need to have dualism in order to have some sort of free will. However, I feel that the battle against dualism permeates too much of the book. Dennett has already written plenty of books on this subject - most of which are substantially longer than this one. In a way, constantly going back to this problem suggests that he doesn't think that his earlier arguments were very persuasive. I can't help thinking that it would be better if he taken determinism as axiomatic at the start of the book, and then proceeded to show that this didn't lead to hopeless problems when accounting for free will

In the later parts of the book Dennett gets more to the point. He describes how free will and morality could have evolved and gives detailed attention to the question of who benefits from altruism, and whether any actions can be called 'genuinely' altruistic, He also brings in relevant experimental results and theoretical studies - this is something that Dennett does better than most other philosophers. Thus we see how freedom could have evolved from simple choice mechanisms in early forms of life into the complex decision making which we face today.

Dennett seems very much taken with Conway's Game of Life. I'm not really sure about this. On the one hand it brings in important questions of whether computers can be thought of as having free will, as well as providing a model for a deterministic universe. On the other it seems that all he shows is that a computer can model a much slower computer.

So should you read this book? Well Dennett is one of the foremost writers in this area, and his work is helping to shape this important field, so yes you should. However, I wouldn't expect this book to be the last word on the subject.

Published by Viking Books, Feb 2003      ISBN 0670031860